PART TWO: CENTRAL VIETNAM
I liked Hue a lot in 2017 so decided to see if I liked it as much a second time around. I only spent the night there and decided it was a “possible potential” as a place to stay longer term, however one major drawback was it was a fair way to any beach. Not a deal breaker for me but definitely something to consider.
The next day I boarded the train for Danang and to my surprise, there was Lauren in the reserved seat next to me!
This train is supposed to be one of the most spectacular train rides in the world as it goes over the famous Hai Van Pass, made popular by the BBC show, Top Gear.
It was great sitting with Lauren chatting as we passed by some beautiful scenery, however I couldn’t help but feel spoiled that I grew up in a country like Australia, which has so much natural beauty. It did make me realize though that perhaps in the past, I had not truly appreciated the beauty of my own backyard and had taken it for granted. A lesson in itself.
In Danang, I bid farewell to Lauren once more as she made her way to Hoi An, half an hour away and I went to Danang to have a bit of time to myself after some intense travelling through Vietnam and Myanmar and before I picked up my crazy Irish friend from Australia (hello Mary).
However my hotel turned out to be less than optimal and the sound of horns and constant construction didn’t make for much relaxation so I just stayed the night and the next morning booked a hotel and took the bus to Hoi An too.
Although touristy, I loved Hoi An in 2017 and I loved it just as much now. I contacted Lauren and we spent the next couple of days travelling around together before she headed off down to the Mekong Delta and I waited for my Mary.
I love the interactions you have whilst travelling and am pleased to say that Lauren and I have kept in touch ever since.
Mary arrived in Hoi An where we stayed for just less than a week, and ended up loving it just as much as I did. I spent a lot of time at the beautiful An Bang beach before Mary arrived but when she came we concentrated on the culture, history and food that Hoi An is known for. As I was travelling full time I resisted the temptation to have anything made by any of Hoi An’s skilled tailors, but Mary had both clothes and shoes made and was very happy with her final products.
For me, Hoi An is a great place to live long term at certain times of the year. I know that there are periods of the year where Hoi An can flood and violent storms lash its coast. The other drawback is the crowds of tourists in the old town and the obvious consequence of the overinflated prices this brings. I know that would wear thin for me, if it was day in and day out. As a tourist it’s fine. As a resident, it’s not.
So Hoi An remained a potential spot to settle in the right season.
Mary and I spent the next 3 weeks making our way down the coast of Vietnam, travelling by train, bus and minivan.
We first travelled by train down the coast through Tam ky and stopped at Quy Nhon station. The first thing we noticed about this area of Vietnam was that there was far less infrastructure and there were far fewer tourists. At first we thought this was a great thing, and it would be if you could speak Vietnamese, however unfortunately neither of us could and there was little to no English spoken by the locals so it made communicating extremely difficult and ended up being very frustrating as even the smallest thing became so difficult. It was an opportunity to really stand back and observe our feelings and behaviour. I realized that I had no right to feel frustrated because I couldn’t understand and I couldn’t make myself understood and I needed to just let go of trying to control the situation to be how I wanted it to be and just accept it for what it was. If I asked for fish for lunch and wind up with tofu and vegetables, so what, right? Be flexible and don’t sweat the small stuff.
As soon as I could let go of the idea of control, I began to find the situation quite funny and had a good laugh at myself (and at Google Translate). The small villages in the area around here are the only places in Vietnam that I have ever been stared at for looking ‘foreign’ and the sight of me caused a young baby to cry and cuddle into her Mum for protection! Whoops. Maybe not the best choice for a long term stay?
We found Quy Nhon to be very friendly, prices were generally cheaper and there were some absolutely beautiful beaches and coves nearby. The popularity of the coastline around here amongst domestic travellers has increased dramatically in recent years, thanks to the movie, Tôi Thấy Hoa Vàng Trên Cỏ Xanh (I See Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass). My advice is to visit this less traveled area sooner rather than later before too many foreign travellers get wind of its beauty and change the landscape forever.
We stayed at Bai Xep beach, which was a beautiful little sheltered cove and then later moved to Ky Co beach. Both beaches are beautiful in their own right but a not to be missed natural attraction in this area is Eo Gio with a dramatically rugged coastline with sharp rocks jutting out of the turquoise sea. It was just stunning as the dawn broke and the sun’s first rays hit the water, painting it a delicate azure. Simply beautiful.
It was here in Quy Nhon that we also found Den Cafe. This is a cafe located next to the Cham twin towers, at 884 Tran Hung Dao, Quy Nhon. Run by the lovely Nga, this is a non profit foundation providing food, training, sometimes accommodation, English classes and music lessons for people with disabilities. Nga also trains them as baristas and in customer service.
Mary and I were lucky enough to witness a musical performance given by some of the students and the standard was high. They played instruments and sang both Vietnamese and English songs. They have a second coffee shop (excellent coffee too BTW) at 25, Le Xuan Tru Street and also sell handicrafts, paintings and garments which they have made. Nga is truly an inspirational soul, striving to empower some of the most vulnerable members of Vietnam’s society. I highly encourage you to drop by one of the Den coffee shops for an excellent brew or to have the privilege of listening to some beautiful music by talented musicians. Her daughter Kim, rents rooms to travellers and to those who volunteer at the centre. Nga’s non profit organization can be found at this link. http://www.nguyennga.org/en/
From Quy Nhon we made our way south on the train to Nha Trang. I had heard very mixed reports about Nha Trang so was extremely curious as to what we would find.
Upon arrival, I was absolutely blown away by how many signs were in both Chinese and Russian but when we ventured out the next morning, the signs made sense.
Let’s just say the demographics of foreign tourists visiting Nha Trang is extremely skewed and with the highrises, construction, ostentatious displays of wealth and large Russian bellies dotting the beach, we couldn’t wait to leave.
We bought seats on a luxury minivan a day earlier than planned and turned inward and upward towards Dalat. What a welcome relief this old French hill station was in contrast to ‘in your face’ Nha Trang, both in temperature and in vibe.
Dalat was unlike any other Vietnamese town or city that I had visited either in 2017 or in 2019. It felt completely different. Maybe it was the altitude and the hills, maybe it was the old French villas which still stand, maybe it was the beautiful lakes and pine forests which surround it? I’m still not sure, but it almost felt like a fusion of Vietnam and Europe and it made us both feel warmly welcomed and we fell in love with this city.
Intuitively I knew I had found it. Dalat was the place I would come back to long term (maybe not in the middle of it’s Winter) but definitely for months at a time. It just felt so comfortable.
(My first visit back was for the months of February and March, 2020 and it won’t be the last time I come back here. There will be an extensive blog post and mini living guide on Dalat in the future, which I will link when written.)
After a week in Dalat we boarded a Jetstar plane and headed south to Vietnam’s pumping economic capital, HCMC. Although not the administrative or political capital, HCMC is a thriving metropolis and by far the nation’s biggest city.
Due to its sheer size, population density (read crowds) and oppressive heat, it’s not somewhere where I could live fulltime.
However, having said that, it does have a way of creeping under your skin and only a couple of months after this trip, I was already back for a week and have another week planned there later in the year. (Post to follow)
Mary and I stayed in District one which is where most tourists end up staying and spent three nights at Nguyen Shack Saigon, which was a little oasis amongst the visual and audio onslaught that is HCMC.
We came here to catch our flight to Cambodia, where I would spend 2 weeks and say adieu to my beautiful friend who would fly from there (with a short layover in HCMC), back to Australia.
A detailed Cambodian and HCMC post will follow soon.